Despite its lack of space ships and laser swords, the saga that lies behind Disney’s current run of Star Wars movies is almost as filled willed intrigue as the one on the cinema screen. The past few years have seen the abrupt departure of such directors as Josh Trank and Colin Trevorrow; hefty reshoots during the production of Rogue One saw Gareth Edwards joined by writer-director Tony Gilroy. Harrison Ford broke his leg on the set of The Force Awakens; Carrie Fisher tragically passed away not long after filming The Last Jedi.
Then we come to Solo: A Star Wars Story, a space opera-western about the galaxy’s best-known pilot, smuggler and all-round rogue. Once headed up by directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie), it was instead completed by Hollywood veteran Ron Howard – reports suggest that Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code) reshot as much as 70 percent of the movie after he was brought in last summer.
Given the turmoil behind the scenes, it’s noteworthy how cleanly Solo’s come together. Like Han himself, the production’s managed to slip through a closing gap with a wry quip and a winning smile.
As written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, Solo’s plot is simple, point-a-to-point-b stuff when you really boil it down. We first meet Han Solo (now played by Alden Ehrenreich) on his home planet of Correllia, where he’s scraping by as a thief in the planet’s scuzzy, sewer-like underbelly. He’s in the gutter, but with one eye on the stars: he has youthful dreams of making a tonne of money, buying a fancy space ship and whisking his first true love Qi’ra (a bright-eyed Emilia Clarke) off around the galaxy.
Han’s ambitions are reliably scuppered, however, by his tendency to get into yet more trouble. An exploit on Correllia sees him on the run from one its big crime bosses. Another incident leaves him at odds with the Empire. Eventually, Han falls in with a gang of bandits led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), and much of the story deals with their attempts to score a huge consignment of a fuel called coaxium – all the better to appease another crime boss, the smoothly murderous Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).
The odd moment of haphazard editing aside, Howard’s movie whisks us from planet to planet and crisis to crisis with maximum efficiency. Ehrenreich, although plainly not Harrison Ford, makes for rock-solid young Han, a character beaten yet seemingly unbowed by all the chaos thrown at him. There’s a likeable chemistry, too, between Ehrenreich and his co-stars, most obviously Emilia Clarke, his main squeeze, Donald Glover’s preening, double-dealing Lando Calrissian, and even Harrelson’s Beckett, whose worldly cynicism soon rubs off on him.
It’s all so slickly done, in fact, that it’s not immediately easy to pin down why Solo feels like a fun yet merely passable Star Wars movie rather than one of the franchise’s true greats. Maybe it’s because, for all the action and turns, the movie’s really just writing in the margins of a story that already exists; we get all the beats expected here, like Han’s growing partnership with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotatomo, taking over from Peter Mayhew), the Millennium Falcon and so forth, but few genuine surprises – largely because with Solo set before the events of A New Hope, Han’s future is already preordained.
Or maybe it’s because the supporting characters don’t quite have the spark of The Force Awakens or the last spin-off, Rogue One; Rio, essentially a talking four-armed space monkey, feels a little too close to a certain Guardians Of The Galaxy character for comfort. L3-37, a droid played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is asked to provide a similarly dry comic foil as Alan Tudyk’s K2-S0 in Rogue One – though for this writer, the jokes involving her campaign for droid freedom never quite land.
Solo’s greatest drawback, however, may be its hero’s lack of a clearly defined arc. Ehrenreich’s Han is a bit younger and a bit more naive than he was when we first met him in 1977’s Star Wars, but he’s still basically Han Solo. As he’ll readily tell anyone who’ll listen, he’s already an ace driver and pilot, already something of a loner (Qi’ra being his only real confidante), and already willing to take wild, one-shot-in-a-million risks. In short, he’s already the finished article, which means that what we see in Solo are essentially stops on the way to an already-defined destination.
Thankfully, Bradford Young’s moody, low-lit cinematography and John Powell’s music (particularly a theme that accompanies a masked raider named Enfys Nest) mean that those stops are entertaining and – in the case of one high-speed heist – sometimes thrilling to see. But all the same, there’s the overweening sense that Solo’s the product of a studio hedging its bets – pleasing its fans, providing easy-going entertainment in the moment – when a movie that actually took some gonzo storytelling risks would have better fitted the daredevil character.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is out in UK cinemas on the 24th May.
We’ve rounded up the best Han Solo related swag here